When first reading, “A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!” I felt disoriented by Emily Dickinson’s roundabout, meandering syntax. So, I decided to take on a sense of having been thrust into a mission that seems impossible to understand.  I found a story line acted out between the poem’s speaker and a still-unproven emissary. Play along with me, if you like, to create a complete sentence out of the poem’s first line by using the recognizable lead-in.

Whimsically, at first, I placed the familiar cliche from the movie, “Mission Impossible,” in front of the poem. This is your mission.  If you decide to accept it, you will need:

A Tongue – to tell Him I am true!
It’s fee – to be of Gold –
Had Nature – in Her monstrous House
A single Ragged Child –

To earn a Mine – would run
That Interdicted Way,
And tell Him – Charge thee speak it plain –
That so far – Truth is True?

And answer What I do –
Beginning with the Day
That Night – begun –
Nay – Midnight – ’twas –
Since Midnight – happened – say –

If once more – Pardon – Boy –
The Magnitude thou may
Enlarge my Message – If too vast
Another Lad – help thee –

Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be –
And His – in solid Gold –
Say Rubies – if He hesitate –
My Message – must be told –

Say – last I said – was This –
That when the Hills – come down –
And hold no higher than the Plain –
My Bond – have just begun –

And when the Heavens – disband –
And Deity conclude –
Then – look for me – Be sure you say –
Least Figure – on the Road –

The first line of the poem, now, has a subject (you), a main verb (will need), and a prepositional phrase …well, I’m not going to turn this into a grammar lesson, though I confess I always loved conjugating sentences.  Right away, I feel lured into accepting this mysterious appointment with the promise of more than a fair wage: “It’s fee – to be of Gold -”.  In this conjured mission, the only assurance of reliability, “… I am true!” is set opposite the vulnerable condition of precarious reliance on nature’s “monstrous House”, and, “A single Ragged Child -”.

If the “Him” referenced throughout the poem is an allusion to posterity, and “a Mine” is the rich source, or treasure house, of truth stored up in the poems for future generations, it stands to reason that, “To earn a Mine – (anyone worthy of it, willingly) would run/That Interdicted Way,”.  I think part of the difficulty in this poem is that there slips back and forth self-talk by the speaker, and, imaginary instructions transmitted to another. The first two lines of the second stanza appear as a personal reflection, while the other two are addressed to one who is charged with following through. If a poem is a storehouse for truth, regardless of how much “That Interdicted Way,” that opaque language, seems to resist meaning, then the hero of this mission impossible will be the reader intent on breaching poetic perimeters.  I find it comical then to read, “.. Charge Thee speak it plain – ”, speak it plain (!?), that which is embodied in the poetry itself.

Just like the movie, this “mission impossible” is not impossible at all if the poet’s representative is up to the challenge. Much of the implied dare is in the question about whether, “.. – Truth is True?”

As in the famous thriller, instinct and skill must guide when truth is not forthcoming.

The speaker seems to say that if you cannot find the truth, then look at the source of the message, “And answer What I do -”.  Almost as if we are told to, “consider the source.”

Perhaps this third stanza’s apparent reversal of night and day refers to enlightened self-interest which results from a period of emotional darkness, “Since Midnight – happened – ”. If so, it would fit in with this idea of poetry-for-the-ages being dependent on a single “ragged child” and “Another Lad – (to) help thee -”.

The fifth stanza reiterates “orders” in language fitting promises to a soldier of fortune for hire, “Thy Pay – in Diamonds – be – /And His – in solid Gold – /Say Rubies – if He hesitate – ”.  The speaker then seems to be whispering only to herself, “My Message – must be told – ”.

The final two stanzas are a decorative conclusion as we might see in a Hollywood film. The brave speaker walks out of the picture into the sunset.  The dominant, starring role is now forever placed into the hands of the reader (ragged child? other lad?), “Say – last I said – was This – /That when the Hills – come down… And Deity conclude – / Then – look for me… Least Figure – on the Road – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

I’ve been looking at quite a few websites devoted to Halloween recently. A recurring theme is of being trapped, locked inside a haunted house or other creepy place.  On some level we must all be claustrophobic. Emily Dickinson uses that spooky dread to call attention to a private “trap” that is a feature of the human species in, “A single Screw of Flesh”.

A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul
That stands for Deity, to mine,
Opon my side the Vail –

Once witnessed of the Gauze –
Its name is put away
As far from mine, as if no plight
Had printed yesterday,

In tender – solemn Alphabet,
My eyes just turned to see –
When it was smuggled by my sight
Into Eternity –

More Hands – to hold – These are but Two –
One more new-mailed Nerve
Just granted, for the Peril’s sake –
Some striding – Giant – Love –

So greater than the Gods can show,
They slink before the Clay,
That not for all their Heaven can boast
Will let its Keepsake – go

In the first stanza there’s a dichotomy set up between “…Flesh (and) … the Soul”; body and spirit. There is ample room for me to speculate that Dickinson has no need for metaphysics, if I prefer to think of this as the me that others know versus the me I know myself to be.

I might mention here that some editors have changed “vail” to “veil” in this poem, where vail in, “Opon my side the Vail – ”, is judged as a figure of speech for a lady’s hat. But, there’s an old English usage of vail that fits perfectly if we want the word to carry the metaphor for contradicting energies. That is because vail, meaning “take off one’s hat or otherwise show respect or submission to someone” leaves a more universal, i.e. males included, application. I think, too, it lines up with Dickinson’s suggestion of my spirit being obliged to submit to the confines of physicality. I have a picture of a proud competent spirit/servant showing respect, with eyes cast downward, that the body/employer will have the last word.

My experience is often of feeling my soul’s identity is obscured because, “Its name is put away” by the actions I pursue. The hungers, angers, dreams and ambitions that are “As far from mine, as if no plight / Had printed yesterday,” when writing one line took hours. Hours.

Did you ever see a better analysis of the effort taken to be known in all my best intentions, as opposed to what others – family, friends, lovers, bosses – interpret? “In tender – solemn Alphabet,” – so much care, so much deliberateness in tackling a role, or a project. Only to do a one-eighty, “My eyes just turned to see – / When it was smuggled by my sight / Into Eternity – ” never to be the success I imagined.

But, no matter. There are always, “More Hands – to hold – These are but Two -”. Perhaps the point is not, after all, to succeed. Perhaps the chase to find a reconciliation of my flesh and my identity-as-I-know-it is, “Just granted, for the Peril’s sake – ”.  Why didn’t I think of it myself?  “Some striding – Giant – Love -…So greater than the Gods can show,” is an over-arching principle.

The struggle I find myself in at this point is to accept that there is a greater truth than spirit or body, soul or flesh – even if it is Love – that great, long striding Giant. And, that like a memento of an adventurous trip, spirit will be a souvenir put away in deference to the authority of the fixed number of years I’m given.  And, “slink before the Clay, /That not for all their Heaven can boast / Will let its Keepsake – go”.


Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

How often I’ve demanded of myself to come to my senses and get down to a favored course of action.  Then, to dispense with daydreams, spending foolishly or some such stumbling block; if successful, then apply myself to my declared goals. Emily Dickinson’s “A Doubt if it be Us” scrutinizes these disparities between intention and action.

A Doubt if it be Us
Assists the staggering Mind
In an extremer Anguish
Until it footing find –

An Unreality is lent,
A merciful Mirage
That makes the living possible
While it suspends the lives.

To dramatize the phenom, the poem uses the circumstance of severe trauma, extreme anguish. In this case, then, I am willing to accept instinctive uncertainty if to “(Assist) the staggering Mind”, doubt provides a cushion “Until it footing find -”.

I can’t help focusing on both the poem’s implied advantages of doubt, and its description – as though it were like a knee jerk to doctor’s tap. Customarily, doubt is seen as a chosen lack of conviction or uncertainty toward something others do or believe. Is it not? Or, like suspicion, an attitude that is aimed at others. Rarely, is doubt aimed inward seen as sensible. The poem looks at doubt’s instinctive characteristics. And, that this instinct is one of self preservation.

Sometimes I am good at handling the relationships, finances and commitments in my life. At other times, my perceptions challenge what formerly seemed to come natural. Shock after great pain is when “An Unreality is lent, / A merciful Mirage” keeps me from comprehending for a time how much my reality has changed.

In smaller shocks to my system, outcomes are also unpredictable. For example, my tastes are more lavish than I can afford. If a financial opportunity comes up, will my susceptibility to beautiful clothes, jewelry, books and art sabotage my ability to handle relationships involved to turn transactions to my benefit.  Clearly, two distinct truths clamor for “That (which) makes the living possible”.

The outcome turns entirely on the Doubt Instinct. To personalize Dickinson’s “Us” of the first line into “me,” one or the other alternative (spending unwisely or organizing wisely) will hold sway. If my doubt instinct operates for my long-term benefit my tendency toward extravagance will be held at bay. Will it be strong and instinctive? Enough that I am careful not to invest money needed for everyday living? Doubt, “While it suspends the lives” , may last for seconds or days.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

Could it be madness if my behavior is inconvenient to everyone around me? I suppose it’s a universal fear to find oneself unhinged from the reality that is defined by family and friends. Emily Dickinson’s “The first Day’s Night had come” plays with this fear.

The first Day’s Night had come –
And grateful that a thing
So terrible – had been endured –
I told my Soul to sing –

She said her Strings were snapt –
Her Bow – to Atoms blown –
And so to mend her – gave me work
Until another Morn –

And then – a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled it’s horror in my face –
Until it blocked my eyes –

My Brain – begun to laugh –
I mumbled – like a fool –
And tho’ ’tis Years ago – that Day –
My Brain keeps giggling – still.

And Something’s odd – within –
That person that I was –
And this One – do not feel the same –
Could it be Madness – this?

There is safety for me in this poem that is perhaps an illusion. But, then, when can one tell if personal illusions serve our greater good? Or, remove us from it? It’s a question I’ve thought about alot. When I was a child, my reality was unlike anything I could find at home. Friends gradually became important. But, I sensed the fears I had about the feelings that rocked me and tossed me were not shared by others.

Acknowledging, “She said her Strings were snapt -/ Her Bow – to Atoms blown – ”, debunks and discredits all the voices in my head that say I shouldn’t feel my wreck and ruin of emotions. The fact, though, of there being a legitimate part of me that is not completely shattered when it says, “And so to mend her – gave me work / Until another Morn – ” is something to hold on to.

I don’t believe this poem’s first stanza reflects a child’s or even a young adult’s response to death or other loss. It’s too full of experience. The ability to talk to myself about distinctions in what I think, feel and do in the face of great pain testifies to considerable skill and sophistication. Sometimes this means simply acknowledging a kind of blindness about what, in fact, I am feeling, or about what the next step might be: “And then – a Day as huge / As Yesterdays in pairs, / Unrolled it’s horror in my face – / Until it blocked my eyes – ”. Nevertheless, to “unroll” implies moving forward. The fear of this “horror” is of being out of control; of being moved in a direction I neither understand, nor like.

I am acquainted with the kind of hysteria described in the fourth stanza. There is absolutely no self reflection in such a state. I’m not sure whether the distance described between the here-and-now of the present-day circumstance of the poem and when “I mumbled – like a fool -” indicates longing or feelings (undescribed) I continue to identify within.

I can see that the person I am today is like someone else entirely from my younger self. Is that a good thing? Or, not? The not knowing is kooky, wacky, puzzling and mystifying. “That person that I was – / And this One – do not feel the same – ”.

Ponder A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way

postscript: Wilkie Collins wrote “Woman in White” in 1860. See Madwomen in the Attic on BBC Radio 4 at 1130 BST on Tuesday 20 April 2010 and afterwards on BBC iPlayer.

Stunned by the pitfalls of misdirected compassion and my own limitations on a new project, today I am threatened with being caught up in petty personal causes. I feel if I don’t get outside myself enough to appeal to the concerns of new people in my life where I’ve obligated myself, I will fail.

The poem that finds and reveals the hidden, frightened, and challenged, excited person I am this morning is, “Struck, was I, nor yet by Lightning —”, by Emily Dickinson.

Struck, was I, nor yet by Lightning –
Lightning – lets away
Power to perceive His Process
With Vitality.

Maimed – was I – yet not by Venture –
Stone of stolid Boy –
Nor a Sportsman’s Peradventure –
Who mine Enemy?

Robbed – was I – intact to Bandit –
All my Mansion torn –
Sun – withdrawn to Recognition –
Furthest shining – done –

Yet was not the foe – of any –
Not the smallest Bird
In the nearest Orchard dwelling –
Be of Me – afraid.

Most – I love the Cause that slew Me –
Often as I die
Its beloved Recognition
Holds a Sun on Me –

Best – at Setting – as is Nature’s –
Neither witnessed Rise
Till the infinite Aurora
In the other’s eyes –

Doing a hit-and run, “Struck, was I, ……”, “Maimed — was I — …”, “Robbed — was I”, the words accomplish their aim at me by what is eliminated.

No, it’s not “by Lightning”, “not by Venture —”, nor “Bandit”. I’m glad to know all this. But what is it? “Who mine Enemy?”

Although there are those I would prefer not to have to deal with, I “Yet was not the foe — of any —”.

Perhaps in the poem, “the Cause that slew Me —” is poetry itself. Or, more universally, the answer to, “Who mine Enemy?”, well, that would be me. The line has a mysterious, deflating effect on the high emotion building up. “Most — I love the Cause that slew Me —”

The acknowledgment of myself as the question and the answer to my problem, “It’s beloved Recognition”, offers a way out of darkness. “.. Recognition / Holds a Sun on Me —”.

Until the day when “infinite Aurora”, a brilliant radiance defines my inner and outer self, forever, and “In the other’s eyes —”, I shall have to make do. Until then, I can decide to set to work. Not shy away from people or challenges. 

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

The only reason I do not have all the power in my life, is that I also have so little.

Emily Dickinson’s tiny little tyranny, “I make His Crescent fill or lack —”, may define strength of dedication where fulfillment of purpose is concerned. It is left for another day to regard the humility and trembling care that goes with believing in the transformative power of pain and loss. And, unheralded sacrifice for the sake of others.

I make His Crescent fill or lack –
His Nature is at Full
Or Quarter – as I signify –
His Tides – do I control –

He holds superior in the Sky
Or gropes, at my Command
Behind inferior Clouds – or round
A Mist’s slow Colonnade –

But since We hold a Mutual Disc –
And front a Mutual Day –
Which is the Despot, neither knows –
Nor Whose – the Tyranny –

The operative word in the first verse is signify. If “I signify —” my approval, I control (by communicating significance) the level of influence I will have. It appears control is the currency, if significance is the goal; “.. at Full / Or Quarter .. /His Tides — do I control —”.

With language used by the most hated representatives of authority, to say of another, “He holds (his place on heights that are) superior .. / Or gropes, (either in the dark, or for a place on the ground) at my Command”, is about the ultimate in expressing unselfconscious omnipotence.

The only reason I do not have all the power over my life (Disc), is that I also have so little.

Could I also say this of God/Fate/Destiny? It seems so.  For, “.. since We hold a Mutual Disc — / And front a Mutual Day —”.

The story of Eve’s eyes being opened to reveal her condition also revealed God. “Which is the Despot, neither knows — / Nor Whose — the Tyranny —”.

The influence of one over the other is deliciously subtle, or, maddeningly so.

Digest A Poem A Day — Accept What Comes Your Way

Ah! Love. What lengths I’ve gone to give it, get it, avoid it, protect it and squander it. Because of some kind of inborn impulse, to analyze it, inspect it, speechify it and so on. Emily Dickinson’s “You love me — you are sure —” is an attempt to remain rational about it.

You love me – you are sure –
I shall not fear mistake –
I shall not cheated wake –
Some grinning morn –
To find the Sunrise left –
And Orchards – unbereft –
And Dollie – gone!

I need not start – you’re sure –
That night will never be –
When frightened – home to Thee I run –
To find the windows dark –
And no more Dollie – mark –
Quite none?

Be sure you’re sure – you know –
I’ll bear it better now –
If you’ll just tell me so –
Than when – a little dull Balm grown –
Over this pain of mine –
You sting – again!

The unwritten but understood, “I love you” receives no ideal response, “I love you, too.” But, instead, it picks a fight; “ — you are sure —”? Doubt and suspicion set the tone throughout.  And, resentment, though suppressed. But, is there love?

Now, think about what it means to face every day with me. I wonder if you can be sure that “I shall not fear mistake — / I shall not cheated wake — / Some grinning morn —”. Good grief! Cut the irony before it bites.

Waking with a grin on my face, one “grinning morn”, to find that love has gone stirs up a series of bad images. The only thing the suspicious lover imagines untouched by grief, the trees, “And Orchards — unbereft —”

I won’t puzzle over the identity of “Dollie.” There seems little doubt the nickname is authored by the poet for her sister-in-law, Susan. The poem’s power is in its metaphor for love.

The vulnerability required to trust someone with my tenderest feelings is echoed in the childlike, “When frightened — home to Thee I run —” where I expect to be protected from harm, not find the source of harm. “To find the windows dark —”.

The poem tells me that the time to expose my doubts and fear of betrayal is at the beginning of, or renewal, of a relationship: “I’ll bear it better now — If you’ll just tell me so —”.

“Because it’s not as if I don’t need you. I do.

“In part, ‘Over this pain of mine —’, I’m willing to let your love provide a balm. But, if I let that happen, ‘…when — a little dull Balm grown — / You sting — again!’ 

“Well, I’ll just stop there. I don’t want to imagine more.”

Digest A Poem A Day – Accept What Comes Your Way